Making Their Mark

Tattooing and body piercing have always been spiritual rites of passage. Now our culture is discovering their power.

Mikel has such intense brown eyes that for a moment they take attention away from the rest of his face. On his right cheek is a dark, elegant tattoo extending from his ear to his mouth. On his left cheek is another, and another on his chin. He has also pierced his nose, tongue, face and ears. Each of these markings is a testimony to his art and his faith. Mikel is a body piercer, or, to use the words on his business card, a flesh mechanic.

Fifty years ago, Mikel and the many other pierced and tattooed people like him in America, would have been featured in travelling sideshows as "Human Oddities". Today, Mikel is part of a cultural movement that has exploded in the last decade, as Americans turn to tattooing, piercing and other, more extreme body markings as both experiential rites and symbols of their particular spiritual path. "Many people are not sure where they fit in, in terms of community," says Enid Schildkrout, curator of "Body Art: Marks of Identity," an exhibit running at The American Museum of Natural History in New York through May. "There is so much mobility, including spiritual affiliation. In a fairly open society people can re-invent themselves. Body modification is a process of deciding who you are and who you want to be."

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Tattooing and its allied arts, in other words, are increasingly understood as substitutes for more traditional religious rites of passage, equivalent to confirmation or Bar Mitzvah. "The end results are the same", says Matty Jankowski, director of The New York Body Archives and owner of The Sacred Body Art Emporium in downtown Manhattan. "It changes people's lives, they become accountable, they engage further in their situation, they become vocal about their beliefs--consciously or unconsciously people know that they need to do this."

Mikel, whose work is featured in the museum's comprehensive exhibit, stresses that his body art is his individual expression. But body modification is as often used to identify a person with a particular community. Fraternities, groups of friends, people associated with a certain type of music, all use body art as way of signifying their affiliation to each other and the outside world.

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